Monday, August 13, 2012

Touchy Feely

It's nice to see that the French can do Hollywood schmaltz. I mean, most of the French films that make it to our shores are decidedly anti-Hollywood (or have traditionally been so), but that doesn't mean they don't make "the feel-good movie of the year!" occasionally. Such a film is The Intouchables (2011, directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano), a big hit in Europe last year and brought to America by the Weinsteins. It's popular enough to come in at number eighty on the ever confounding IMDb top 250 films. It's a film that seriously wants to uplift the audience, make them laugh, and wonder at the joy of humanity. More than that, it's a buddy comedy! It's a "wonza movie." Wonza tough, street-smart immigrant. Wonza rich quadriplegic who is choking on his silver spoon. Hijinks!

It's actually a pretty terrible movie, though I'd be lying if I said that I didn't have a good time when I was watching it, because I did.

The story follows Driss and Phillipe. When we first meet them, they are driving like a bat out of hell through Paris nighttime traffic, and shamming the police when they're cornered, all for a laugh. Phillipe is legitimately a quadriplegic, and he puts on a good show for the cops. The movie then flashes back to their first meeting where Philippe and his assistant are interviewing new caregivers. Driss is an immigrant from Senegal. He doesn't care about the job. He just needs a signature stating that he interviewed for the job in order to get his unemployment benefit. His brashness stands out from the usual wet noodles who come to the job with a ton of experience in long-term care. Phillippe sees something in Driss, and takes him on. Driss, for his part, is resistant to the things his new job entails. The last thing in the world he signed on for is clearing the bowels of a man who can't do it for himself. Caring for the hygiene of another man pricks his own manhood (and homophobia). But slowly, the two men form a friendship. Philippe's cultural interests begins to penetrate Driss's street-smart shell, while Driss's own culture and machismo begin to seep into Philippe. Philippe begins to live life again, especially after Driss encourages him to act on a longtime epistolary relationship Philippe has cultivated with a woman in Dunkirk. Unfortunately, Driss has a troubled family life and when it becomes apparent to the two men that Driss must attend to his at-risk siblings, Philippe lets him go and gets another caregiver (one of the wet noodles from the beginning of the film). The two men eventually reunite and Driss forces Philippe to live again...

This is a movie that has the "magical negro" all over it. We're used to these sorts of tropes here in America, but I think they're newer to France because they haven't figured out how to disguise it very well. That's not the only cliche on display, mind you. This is a formula movie, after all, and formula movies use cliches as building blocks. As a result, we get the dance number where Driss infects the uptight white crowd with funk. We get the obligatory bonding scene over a joint. We get Driss raging over vapid modern art and then executing some himself to the tune of 11,000 Euros. Seriously, this movie hasn't got an original idea in its head. It even has a quasi-Crying Game moment when he discovers that Magalie, the redhead he flirts with for the entire movie is gay. One of the problems with these kinds of cliches is that they often reflect a certain amount of bigotry, and this film is rife with homophobia that's much more virulent than the casual racism in its tropes. This is, of course, based on a true story, as all such films must be these days, so one mustn't trust the veracity of anything you see on screen.

The weird thing about this, though, is that these are tropes being constructed by entitled white guys who have no idea what the hell they're doing. Driss's "hipness" seems like an anachronism. I mean, the kind of funk he listens to is forty years out of date. This film has no acquaintance with hip hop. In 2011? Really? It's not a very credible version of street smarts. The film doesn't have anything particularly Gallic about it, either. French cinema is usually distinctive, even in its most slick and commercial iterations, but not this film. But for the language, this could be set anywhere. It's filmed with the kind of international commercial style that makes for an anonymous world cinema.

So this is a bad movie. Seriously, it is. But "bad" is not mutually exclusive from "entertaining." You'll have to bear with me for this, because it's a matter of personal experience. Last week was not a good period for me (which might be evidenced by the fact that my blogging has dropped off a cliff), so it's just as well that this film is undemanding and so "brute force" in its approach to entertainment. The jokes mostly worked for me, possibly because I was in a mood for comedy. I think this also benefits from its lead actors, particularly Omar Sy, who plays Driss with a broad, toothy grin and an infectious joie de vivre. François Cluzet has a harder part to play given that he has no body language to work with, but he, too, manages to project a force of personality. Watching these two is fun, regardless of the relative incompetence of the rest of the film.

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